Almost all of us can remember the days when we’d goofed up and had to go out to a bush and get a switch or endure the slap of a leather belt across our bottoms.
In our backyard we had a lilac bush which provided the most juicy switches ever for my mother, who, though she stood only about 5′,5″ seemed to convert into an alien as she brought the switch down on us, muttering a word of displeasure for what we had or had not done with each painful blow.
I grew up promising myself I would never beat my children, and I didn’t. They never got a switch or a belt. I had other means of getting their attention.
But in her book “The Warmth of Other Suns,” Isabel Wilkerson offers a take on corporal punishment that I had never considered.
My parents grew up in a time where black people had to know their place. Wilkerson says that parents”trained their children in the ways of subservience and treated their children as the white people running things treated them. It was preparation for the lower-caste role children were expected to have mastered by puberty.”
Wow. I had never thought of that.
I do remember that in my integrated school, the white kids talked to adults in ways I would never have dreamed of doing. In fact, I in general kept my mouth shut. It was a sure way to get a whipping if Mama was told that we had talked back to an adult, any adult. If an adult was wrong, she’d say, you come home and tell me and I’ll.
I obeyed my mother, but don’t think I didn’t notice that the white kids talked back, not only to teachers but to their parents as well. I didn’t understand why they were allowed to kind of do and say what they wanted, but we were not.
Wilkerson reminds us, though, that breaking the cultural protocol of those times was both deadly and dangerous for black people, and black people could and did lose their lives for stepping “out of line.” If children didn’t learn their place, Wilkerson says, “they could get on the wrong side of a white person and the parents could do nothing to save them.”
So, the switch and belt whippings were acts of love and protection? Wilkerson would probably say yes. I would say “mostly.”
I say “mostly” because those whippings also provided a vent for our parents, who were too often frustrated by the society and culture in which they lived. I swear, sometimes the whippings I got were uncalled for, but thinking back, I can see how we children, who knew nothing of grown up challenges, trying to make a way for us in a hostile world, could provide the spark for a frustrated parent to let off a little steam.
There was good and bad in the corporal punishment they gave, if I accept Wilkerson’s theory. The good is that those whippings, or the threat of getting such a whipping, kept us “in line.” We did learn how to act around white folks, and,in fact, all grown folks. I kept my mouth shut even when one teacher I had told a bold-faced lie on me. Thankfully, my mother picked up the teacher’s dishonesty, too; there were a lot of adults, black and white, who took advantage of the fact that black kids were taught “their place.” Better that I risked getting in trouble after a lie than assured myself of a beating for dissing an adult in plain sight.
Learning how to stay “in line” probably kept a lot of us out of trouble and alive.
The bad thing about it all, though, was that those whippings beat us into submission so much that too many of us grew up not even thinking about speaking up for ourselves and defending ourselves against wrong and injustice. I mean, I’ve lost that reticence by now, but for way too long, I know I kept silent when I should have said something. I would imagine there are a lot of black kids who grew up with that same problem.
The whole concept of receiving the whippings as life-saving lessons is understandable to me, at least. It is not a far-fetched idea. To this day, I tell young African American men to be quiet when they are arrested,and to stay “in line” so that they don’t give police officers, who are still mostly white, an excuse to beat them or arrest them or both. Although Jim Crow is gone, he left an aura of hatred and violence based on racism which has not gone away.
I still wince at the thought of some of those lilac-bush switch whippings…but if they were done in love, to ultimately save my life, then, Mama, I forgive you. What parents do for love may not be comprehensible by the children, but sooner or later, the fact that love guided them sinks into child minds now grown up.
That is a candid observation.